Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (#BookReview)

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray/River of dreams is Anita Heiss’ second work of historical fiction, her first being Barbed wire and cherry blossoms about the 1944 Cowra breakout in which she imagines a relationship between a Japanese escapee and a young First Nations Australian woman. I have not read that novel, but I have read, over the last year or so, other First Nations Australia historical novels, including Julie Janson’s Benevolence (my review) and the collaborative novel by non-Indigenous Australian Craig Cormick and First Nations writer Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (my review). Long before these, though, was Kim Scott’s unforgettable The deadman dance (my review).

The value of these, and like books, to offering a First Nations perspective on the one-sided history that most of us grew up with can not be under-estimated. Heiss, in fact, wrote in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, that through re-engaging with her Wiradyuri homelands in her early 50s,

I realised very quickly I had to honour those Ancestors who for millennia have lived, loved, and nurtured the land and each other. And I wanted to pay tribute to those who carry on culture, knowledge and language still today. I felt I had a responsibility as an author to write our Wiradyuri heroes – our men and women – into the Australian narrative where they had been ignored or forgotten too long.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is her response to that realisation. It is of particular interest to me because it is set around Gundagai and Wagga Wagga, which are within three hours’ drive from where I live. Although I have been visiting the Gundagai region since the mid-1970s, it was only in recent years that I became aware of the story which is central to Heiss’ novel. This story concerns Gundagai‘s flood of 1852. As Wikipedia describes, the Murrumbidya flooded, killing at least 78 of the town’s population of 250 people. Using bark canoes, four local Aboriginal men, including Yarri, Jacky Jacky, and Long Jimmy, saved somewhere between 40 and 68 people. They were minimally recognised at the time, but, finally, in 2017 (2017!), a bronze sculpture of Yarri and Jacky Jacky, with canoe, was unveiled in Gundagai. Heiss’ novel concerns the life of a young Wiradjuri woman, Wagadhaany, the imagined daughter of Yarri.

The novel is told, like many historical novels, chronologically, but it starts with a Prologue set in 1838, some 14 years before the main narrative starts. This prologue is important. It introduces Wagadhaany who, as a 4-year-old, is with her babiin, Yarri, as he tells a “White man” that the place they are standing on is “not a good place to live, Boss, too flat”, that it’s a “flood area”. Of course, the White man ignores this local knowledge and so the stage is set for 1852 when the devastating flood comes. By this time, Wagadhaany, now 18, is working as a servant for that very White man, Henry Bradley.

The flood and its immediate aftermath occupy the first five chapters of this 29-chapter novel. Only two sons of the Bradley family of six survive, along with Wagadhaany. The rest of the novel follows their lives over the next couple of decades, showing how little the White settlers learnt from the experience – practically, in terms of how to live on the land, and morally, in terms of their behaviour to the true owners of the country. Wagadhaany, who is bound, she is told, by the Master and Servants Act of 1840, has no agency in such a world.

“a witness without a voice”

Into this situation comes the young Quaker widow, Louisa, who, like the Bradley men, lost her family in the floods. I was surprised by the appearance of a Quaker, but Heiss also explains in her Note that there were Quakers in early colonial Australia, and they were interested in “the treatment of the convicts and the Aborigines”.

Louisa is an interesting character because she tries to treat Wagadhaany well. She calls her by her actual name, rather than Wilma, as James Bradley does; she works alongside her in the kitchen and garden; she gives her a bedroom in the house; and she converses with Wagadhaany as a friend. But, she has her blind-spots. She is oblivious to Wagadhaany’s lack of agency over her life, to the fact that, when the Bradleys (now including Louisa), move to Wagga Wagga, she thoughtlessly over-rides Wagadhaany’s wish to stay in the Gundagai area where her family is.

As the novel progresses, Wagadhaany’s homesickness for her family, and her country, increases. We are privy to Wagadhanny’s thoughts, to her awareness that there are limits – albeit unconscious ones – to Louisa’s concept of equality. Louisa is, after all, a product of her time and her culture – and Wagadhaany notices that, for all their “equality”, it is Wagadhaany who does the hardest, dirtiest, heaviest jobs, and that she is not paid a wage.

What the presence of Louisa does, though, is to add richness and nuance to the depiction of colonial society. She is a foil to the brutal, racist attitudes of James Bradley. She does not mitigate them but shows that his were not the only views around. Wagadhaany, on the other hand, tells it as it is from the First Nations’ perspective. In the early days after the flood, Heiss writes that Wagadhaany

feels like a witness without a voice. She was there, she lived through the horror of the flood, the fear, the physical exhaustion, the loss of those she knew. But no-one asks how she is, what she thinks or knows, or how she feels.

For all Louisa’s kindness, there is much Wagadhaany feels she can’t say, and so throughout the story she continues as a silent witness. Here she is reflecting on Louisa and work:

She wondered why Louisa had to be protected from hard work but the Wiradyuri women didn’t. And she wondered if that thought ever crossed Louisa’s mind, because that made them different, unequal …

Gradually, though, she starts to stand up for herself:

“I know I will have to work for you, I know about the masters and servants law, but you cannot keep me living here in the homestead against my will if you honestly believe I am your equal and that I should be as free as you”.

And Louisa, to her credit, “lets” her live with the river family.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray has strong characters, but it is also a genre novel with a strong plot, including of course, romance. I don’t want to spoil what is a good page-turning story, so I will leave the story here.

Heiss has several novels under her belt now. She knows how to tell a good story, and she is also very clear about her message. She uses her fiction to show what she wants the rest of us to know. In this novel, it’s the way First Nations people lived, the way they tried to work with the settlers, and the way they were gradually pushed off their land. She also, through Louisa, forces us to confront what really is being “a good White person”. So, not only does the novel tell some truths about Australia’s settler history but it is also immediately relevant to today.

In this novel, Heiss also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, incorporates language into the writing. There is a glossary at the back, but you rarely need it because most words are self-explanatory in context. Seeing “our” nation’s words in Australian literature is a truly exciting development.

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray isn’t a perfect novel – and I struggled particularly with Louisa’s falling in love with the man she does. But this is a genre novel, and a bit of belief-stretching is allowed. The end result is a book that engages the reader with its strong protagonist in Wagadhaany, that wraps its vital messages in a compelling story, and, significantly, that ends authentically.

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) has also recommends this book.

Anita Heiss is a Wiradyuri woman from NSW.

Anita Heiss
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
London: Simon & Schuster, 2021
393pp.
ISBN: 9781760850449

Larissa Behrendt, After story (#BookReview)

Larissa Behrendt’s latest novel After story has been on my wishlist since it came out last year, so I was thrilled when my reading group chose it as our 2022 NAIDOC-Week read. What self-respecting reader, after all, doesn’t like a literary tour?

After story, for those who haven’t caught up with it yet, is framed around a ten-day literary tour of England that is undertaken by a First Nations Australian mother and daughter, Della and Jasmine, whose relationship is fraught. Through this plot device, Behrendt marries her two storytelling loves – English literature and Indigenous Australian storytelling. In doing so, she draws comparisons between them, and explores ways in which both can reflect on and enhance our lives. She also shows how travel can be an engine of change for people.

Although it contains some very dark matter concerning grief and abuse, After story is a gentle and generous read – for two reasons. First, there’s the characters. Della and Jasmine, are strong, thoughtful and, importantly, real. Both have made mistakes in managing the challenges in their lives, but both genuinely want to have better relationships with those they love. Della, the less educated and more naive of the two, is particularly engaging for her honesty and lack of pretension, for her open-mindedness, and for the rawness of her pain. The other reason is the novel’s tone. It is clear and passionate about the wrongs done to Australia’s First Nations peoples but it is not angry. This is not to say that anger doesn’t have its place – it certainly does – but it’s not the only approach to telling the story of dispossession and dislocation.

What is particularly striking about this book is its structure and voice. After a prologue in Della’s voice telling of the disappearance twenty-five years ago of her 7-year-old daughter Brittany, the novel is structured by the tour, with each day being told, in first person, by Della and then Jasmine, until Day 8, when Della’s built-up grief overcomes her. After that, the order changes and Jasmine goes first. This change marks a turning point in their relationship – albeit not an immediate, epiphanic one. It also jolts the narrative out of a pattern that had risked becoming a little too rigorous. Like a coda, it makes the reader sit up and wonder what will happen next?

What does happen, however, as I’ve already implied, is not particularly dramatic. Rather, this book emulates something Virginia Woolf said, as Jasmine shares:

The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.

Like life.

But, back to the structure. After story is one of those books in which the structure mirrors or supports its intention – and Jasmine, again, explains it well. Talking about Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ response to it in Wide Sargasso Sea, she says, “it’s compelling, the uncovering of the other side of the story”. “Uncovering the other side of the story” is the nub of this novel – personally, in terms of Della, Jasmine, and their relationship with each other and the rest of their family, and politically, in terms of the conflicting views and experiences of the colonisers and colonised. What Behrendt aims for in this novel, I believe, is to bring people together through improved mutual understanding.

Lest this sound too earnest, though, let me reiterate my earlier comment that this novel has a light touch. To balance the heavy material, which includes a number of losses including those related to abandoned and lost children, Behrendt creates a cast of typical tour participants. There’s the white male know-it-all professor and his seemingly mouse-like wife; the feminist young lesbian couple willing to take him on at every turn; the recently retired, educated middle-class couple; the bossy woman and her down-trodden sister; Della and Jasmine; and of course Lionel, the long-suffering tour guide, and bus-driver Brett. Behrendt handles these almost-stereotypical characters well, so that, by the end, even the arrogant Professor Finn is softened for us.

There is much humour in the telling, such as this, for example, from Della as she enters the British Museum, which, she has just discovered, still holds Aboriginal remains:

As we walked into the imposing white building there was a big glass bowl with money in it and a sign asking for donations.
“We already gave,” I said to the guard who was standing next to it.

Comments and asides like this are used throughout the novel to draw our attention to the truths we may not otherwise see. Truth, in fact, is a recurring idea in the novel – the withholding and the sharing. Della, reflecting on Thomas Hardy’s first wife being written out of history, remembers stories of erasure told by her community’s elder Aunty Elaine, and thinks “Sometimes the truth matters and you shouldn’t try to hide the facts”. A little later, Jasmine is also reminded of Aunty Elaine’s wisdom:

Aunty Elaine would remind me that there is more than one way to tell a story; there can sometimes be more than one truth. ‘The silences are as important as the words,’ she’d often say. There is what’s not in the archive, not in the history books – those things that have been excluded hidden overlooked.

Throughout the novel, Aunty Elaine’s stories and wisdom, shared through the memories of Della and Jasmine, provide the First Nations’ foil to the literary tour, sometimes enhancing, sometimes counteracting the messages and lessons of English literature.

I did, however, have one issue with the novel, one shared by a few in my reading group. This concerned its occasional didactic tone. Frequently, for example, the characters tell us what they’d learnt at various sites, such as about Jane Austen’s life or Virginia Woolf’s death. While we could see the point, the way the information was imparted did feel teachy at times. Fortunately, this tone did not extend to the novel’s underpinning ideas which are conveyed through the narrative rather than “told”.

In a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel, Behrendt said something that appeals to me, which is that the goal of being a great writer is to say something important. In After story, she has written an engaging, accessible novel, that also says important things – some subtle, some more overt, but all stemming, ultimately, from the traumas First Nations people have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of the settlers.

Jasmine comes to a significant realisation near the end:

Suddenly I found the museum stuffy. When Aunty Elaine would talk about it, our culture felt alive – the sewing of possum cloaks … the gift of telling stories. They were living and breathing, not relics of the past, frozen in time. Looking at the artefacts surrounding me, I couldn’t help but feel I missed an opportunity with Aunty Elaine to capture her knowledge.

She had, she continues, “rightly valued education” but she had also “taken Aunty Elaine and her knowledge for granted”.

This is the call Behrendt makes in her novel. She wants both cultures given equal respect for what they can offer us. She knows the value of stories in bringing people together. Wouldn’t it be great if her story here achieved just that?

Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman

This book has been reviewed by several bloggers including Lisa, Brona and Kimbofo.

Larissa Behrendt
After story
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
307pp.
ISBN: 9780702263316

Monday musings on Australian literature: Magabala Books

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week and this year’s NAIDOC Week officially ended yesterday. However, as I’ve done before, I’m bookending those events with Monday Musings posts – with this week’s topic being the pioneering publisher, Magabala Books.

Magabala Books have been operating for over 40 years – as they share on their website. (I do love it when organisations make space for telling their history on their websites, and am really frustrated when they don’t. Do you feel the same?)

Origins

I’ve linked to their About us page above, but in a nutshell, their origin can be found in 1984 when “more than 500 Aboriginal Elders and leaders met at a cultural festival in Ngumpan” in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, to discuss how they could keep culture strong and protect cultural and intellectual property”. The result was the establishment of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), which laid the ground for Magabala Books. 

“Magabala’s beginnings”, they say, “were part of the wider movement of Aboriginal self-determination occurring in the 80s”, a time when Australia was “just beginning to reveal its interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture”.

Magabala’s first book, Mayi: Some Bush Fruits of the West Kimberley by Merrilee Lands, was published in 1987, and this was soon followed by Glenyse Ward’s highly-acclaimed autobiography, Wandering girl. In March 1990, Magabala Books became an independent registered Indigenous Corporation. It is governed by a Board comprising Kimberley Aboriginal educators, business professionals and creative practitioners.

Their Vision and Purpose is:

To inspire and empower Indigenous people to share their stories. To celebrate the talent and diversity of Australian Indigenous voices through the publication of quality literature. (website)

They achieve this not only by publishing books on and by First Nations Australians, but they also create and deliver a wide range of cultural projects geared at ensuring stories of value continue to be available into the future, and they offer a number of awards and scholarships which support their commitment to nurturing and celebrating First Nations talent.

Recognition

On their website, they describe themselves as “Australia’s leading Indigenous publisher”, and they list some of their achievements. Here’s a selection, from that and my own search of Trove and the web:

  • 1993: Magabala Books publication Tjarany Roughtail won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s inaugural Eve Pownall Award for Information Books (and other awards including the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year) 
  • 2017 and 2019: shortlisted for Small Publisher of the Year (Australian Book Industry Awards)
  • 2019: the fastest growing independent small publisher in Australia
  • 2020: awarded the Small Publisher of the Year (Australian Book Industry Awards)
  • 2020 and 2021: listed as a candidate for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a prestigious international children’s literary award

I’m not sure whether Tjarany Roughtail, by Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill, is their first award-winner, but it will have been one of the first. Since then many of their books have been shortlisted for or won significant Australian literary awards, proving that Magabala truly is a force in Australian publishing. If you’d like to check out some of the books that have been recognised by the literary awards circuit, click on their Award Winning and Notable page.

Their books

On their About Us page, they say that since beginning they have published “more than 250 titles by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, artists and illustrators from across Australia”, of which I’ve read several. Their authors include Bruce Pascoe, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby-Eckermann and Alison Whittaker. Currently, they publish around “15 new titles annually across a range of genres: children’s picture books, memoir, fiction (junior, YA and adult), non-fiction, graphic novels, social history and poetry” and I’ve read several over the years. They are also committed to maintaining “a substantial backlist in print” which is great to see. (And, it’s clearly true because that 1993 award-winning book, Tjarany Roughtail is still listed on their inventory).

Anyhow, I thought I’d delve a little into Trove to see what I could find about early responses to them and their work – recognising of course that the post-1987 period is still in copyright so most newspapers have not yet been digitised.

I was interested to find their existence was noted early on. Moya Costello started her review in Sydney’s Tribune wrote in 1988 with:

Some books turn your head around. For me, two such books have been by Aborigines. Only two because I am just beginning to read Aboriginal writing, and because we’re just at the beginning of a great swell of Aboriginal writing being published in Australia.

And then, she writes, comes a third book, Glenyse Ward’s Wandering girl. She wishes “books like this had been around when I was at school. I have missed this history of my own country. (My own country?)” She is not the only reviewer to recognise the history we have missed. Anyhow, she then identifies the publisher:

You haven’t heard of Magabala Books? Let me introduce you. Based in Broome, WA, Magabala books publishes writings by Aboriginal people. It’s been funded by Bicentennial money — but if you’ve heard the publishers speak, and if you’ve read Magabala publications, would you quibble?

In 1989, Canberra-based author Marian Eldridge reviewed in The Canberra Times two First Nations books, one being Magabala’s Raparapa: Stories from the Fitzroy River drovers by Eric Lawford, Jock Shandley, Jimmy Bird, Ivan Watson, Peter Clancy, John Watson, Lochy Green, Harry Watson and Barney Barnes. They are important, she writes, because both are “told by Aborigines from an Aboriginal point of view” and “what they have to say is part of Australia’s history that has been far too long neglected”. Again, we we see in a mainstream newspaper, recognition of history we’ve missed. Interestingly, a new edition of Raparapa was published by Magabala in 2011.

Eldridge goes on to say about Raparapa that:

Until now, books about the cattle industry in northern Australia have been written by white people. Raparapa, instigated by John Watson, formerly Fitzroy River stockman and later chairman of the Kimberley Land Council, helps to right the balance.

Jess Walker also reviewed this book in 1989 in Tribune, and concurs, saying the book

is much more than just a collection of interesting anecdotes. It’s a very rich and stimulating book which fulfills the objectives John Watson set for it – to communicate to other Australians the full extent of Aboriginal involvement in one of Australia’s most important primary industries, and to help explain Aborigines’ relationship to land. Raparapa also preserves the stories of an older generation of men for the benefit of the younger Aboriginal people. 

I found quite a bit more, but I will close with a report by Robert Hefner in The Canberra Times in 1990. He quotes Pat Torres, a First Nations writer and artist (among other things), who was on Magabala’s management committee. She described their basic aim as being

to foster the oral history and stories of the Kimberley and put it into a form which is accessible to a lot of people. We encourage the training of Aboriginal people in the area of publishing, and we encourage local artists to contribute their drawings to illustrate the stories. But basically our aim is to foster and maintain Aboriginal culture and history . 

As Magabala Books say on their current website, they want “to ensure Indigenous people control their own stories [my emph], and that the benefits flow back to the right people”. It seems that they are not only achieving that, but are also getting those stories out to the wider Australian public. Finally, we are learning the history so many of us missed.

For Lisa’s 2022 First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (#BookReview)

The final line of “Gather”, the opening poem in Evelyn Araluen’s collection Dropbear, announces her intention – “got something for you to swallow”. Well, I can tell you now, if you haven’t already read the book, she sure has.

Dropbear, self-described by Araluen as a “strange little book”, won this year’s Stella Prize, the first year, in fact, that poetry was included as an eligible form for the prize. It has also been highly commended or shortlisted for several other significant Australian literary awards. I can see why. It is a fiercely intelligent, confronting and discomforting read that tells truths we all need to hear – and feel. It is also, however, a literary feast, replete with allusions to Australian literature from May Gibbs to Kate Grenville, from Banjo Paterson to Peter Carey, and more. There is a reason for this as Araluen explains in her Notes at the end. Dropbear should, she writes,

be read with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

In other words, you fight fire with fire! What this means is that in this collection, Araluen, from her Notes again, “riff[s] off and respond[s] to popular tropes, icons and texts of Australian national culture”. In doing so, she upends prevailing attitudes, challenging the colonial project and making it very clear that it’s still in play. This all starts with the title which comprehends the myths and dishonesties at the core of Australia’s settler culture.

In the collection’s second piece, “The ghost gum sequence”, she revisits Australia’s early colonial history, concluding with

Tench’s gaze is still there – but so is ours staring back.

Simply said, powerful in impact. Araluen, and her peers, are no shrinking violets.

However, she also recognises (as does Larissa Behrendt in After story), that she too was brought up on these same texts she uses in her resistance. Hence

the entanglement: none of this is innocent and while I seek to rupture I usually just rearrange. I arrange the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too. (“To the parents”)

“To the parents” is one of the more autobiographical pieces in the collection. In it she reconciles her younger self’s frustration. She had seen her “parents as easy victims of the colonial condition, and not agential selves who had sacrificed everything” for their children, whereas in fact:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were never taught to settle for them. My parents never pretended these books could truly know country or culture or me – but they had both come from circumstances in which literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just wanted me to be able to read.

The resourcefulness of First Nations people is palpable in experiences like this. For Araluen, there is challenge in teasing out the “entanglement” of her own “black and convict ancestors” (“The Ghost Gum Sequence”). This includes that hard “yakker” of connecting with black heritage lost through generations of dispossession: “It is hard to unlearn a language / to unspeak the empire” (“Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal”).

Another autobiographical piece is “Breath” in which she writes of being overseas with J when the 2019-2020 bushfires hit and the pandemic starts. She is confronted by her personal dreams in dystopian times:

We came to talk about temporality, about literature, about the necessity of art in the time of crisis … We spent our youths imagining this kind of life, dreaming of ourselves as writers and thinkers who travel the world to tell stories. Being here tastes sour and hollow – it feels like relic-making. What use is a poem in a museum of extinct things, where the Anthopocene display is half-finished? … What use is witness at the end of worlds.

And yet, she doesn’t give up. In poem after poem she witnesses and shares what she sees. It’s exhilarating to read, if that’s not too positive a spin on tough content. “The trope speaks” addresses the many ways in which settler literature has usurped place, ignorantly and arrogantly:

The trope feels a ghostly spectre haunting the land, but smothers it with fence and field and church

The trope thinks every tree is a ghost gum

Later, in “Appendix Australia”, which comprises bitingly funny footnotes, this latter point is referenced again in “37. sic: not a fucking ghost gum, ibid”, reminding us yet again how little we settlers really do know country, as we muddle, if not stomp, our way around it.

The collection is divided into three parts – Gather, Spectre and Debris – which reflect a thematic and narrative trajectory that takes us from historical imperatives in Gather, through more personal reflections in Spectre, to marrying present and past in Debris, though I am making this sound more clear-cut than it really is, because the connections are more organic than formal.

The pieces vary significantly in form and style, and include prose poems, upper-case poems, a redacted poem, and memoir, but there is a coherence that transcends this difference. This coherence lies in the book’s overall unrelenting exposé of the workings of a colonial-settler society that still avoids the truth, and it is supported by recurring ideas and multilayered images, like banksia men and gumnut babies, ghosts/spectres, smoke/ash, and haunting/hunting. Each of these contain opposing ideas that jolt the reader into stopping to consider the meaning and argument being presented. It’s not easy reading, but it is worth persevering.

The final piece in Gather is “The Last Endeavour”, which tells the Cook story. It’s a prose poem that makes no bones about what these “ghosts” were doing: “we have the promise of history, the order to bring light to the dark”. It’s dramatic, ironic and, like most of the collection, satiric.

Immediately preceding this is the telling “Dropbear Poetics” which concludes with:

you do wrong        you get wrong
you get
gobbled up

Can’t say plainer than that.

The book, then, conveys ongoing loss, and critiques how deeply settler-driven history and literature is implicated in that, but it is also a hymn to country. Araluen is Bundjalung-born and raised in Dharug country, and her descriptions of the birds, trees and rivers of these coastal-riverine places are paradoxically beautiful when set against the overall narrative.

Dropbear is an impossible book to review, because every time I pick it up to consider how to end this post, I see something else I want to share. I must finish it, but I must also mention the irony and wit to be found in the collection. Poems like “Acknowledgement of cuntery” and “Appendix Australis”, for example, are breathtaking in their use of humour to skewer settler hypocrisy and obliviousness.

In a final act of deconstruction and, perhaps, reconstruction, Araluen ends her book with the defiant poem, “THE LAST BUSH BALLAD”, that sees the Banksia Men, the Bunyip, and the Dropbear defeated. It concludes on a reminder of the opening poem:

I told you I was prepared to swallow.

Araluen’s Dropbear might be a “strange” book, but it is certainly not little. It’s audacious, erudite and unsettling (pun intended), and warrants every bit of the time and attention I gave it – and more. Recommended.

Brona (Brona’s Books) has also posted on this book. However, I don’t think she will be offended if I say that Jeanine Leane’s First Nations analysis in the Sydney Review of Books comprehends and explains this work far better than we ever could.

Evelyn Araluen
Dropbear
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2021
104pp.
ISBN: 9780702263187

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australian poets

2022 National NAIDOC logo

Yesterday was the start of Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) 2022 First Nations Reading Week which coincides of course with NAIDOC Week. As has become my practice, I’m devoting this week’s Monday Musings to the cause.

NAIDOC Week’s theme this year is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! Its focus is encouraging First Nations people to continue “getting up, standing up, and showing up” to achieve “systemic change” and to “narrow the gap between aspiration and reality, good intent and outcome”. They also say,

The relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non‑Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.

I would like to think that our blogs help in some way by sharing our engagement with First Nations Australian writing, and hopefully inspiring others to engage too. There is a lot of truth-telling in First Nations writing and I greatly appreciate what I am learning. Although it can be confronting at times, it is exciting to feel my understanding expanding and deepening.

Book cover

And this brings me to this post, because my introduction to First Nations Australians’ experience and thinking came through poetry. It was in my teens in the late 1960s. I had become interested in racial inequality, and discovered the work of Kath Walker, as she was known then.

Kath Walker was, of course, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993). According to the Macquarie Pen anthology of Aboriginal literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, Walker “readopted her tribal name” in 1988 “as a protest against Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations and a symbol of her Aboriginal pride”. Heiss and Minter say that her 1964-published collection, We are going, “was the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal writer and the first book by an Aboriginal woman”.

Book cover

For Poetry Month last year, you may remember that I asked people to share their favourite poem (or poems). One of mine was Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s “We are going”, and I see that it is one of the eight that Heiss and Minter selected for their anthology. As they say in their introduction to her, “Oodgeroo was politically active from the late 1940s and became one of the most prominent Aboriginal voices”. Her poetry reflected her politics, as is common among poets from marginalised, disempowered people. Poetry, after all, is a powerful tool. It can make points succinctly, and do so in ways that you want to repeat. Listen to the end of “We are going” – the repetition, the rhythm and tone it creates, and the final line. Wham!

We are nature and the past, all the old ways 
Gone now and scattered. 
The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter. 
The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place. 
The bora ring is gone. 
The corroboree is gone. 
And we are going.

Oodgeroo varied her style, and often used rhyme, but here she uses free verse to such rhetorical effect.

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t read much First Nations poetry again for a few decades, until I read contemporary poets like Ellen Van Neerven, Ali Cobby Eckermann and, right now, Evelyn Araluen. However, First Nations people were writing poetry right through, and Heiss and Minter include many in their anthology. These writers include Jack Davis (1917-2000), who wrote a poem titled “Walker (For Kath)”. It starts, “Fight on, Sister, fight on/Stir them with your ice”.

Then, there’s Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) and his daughter Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019), and Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), who also wrote a poem for Oodgeroo titled “Kath Walker”. It starts, allusively, with “We are coming, even going”. There’s Tony Birch (b. 1957), some of whose prose I’ve reviewed, and Sam Wagan Watson (b. 1972), son of novelist Sam Watson (1952-2019).

There are writers I don’t know so well, like Lisa Bellear (1961-2006), who, say Heiss and Minter, was a “notably political poet”. (But, then, how many weren’t and aren’t.) Her poem, “Women’s liberation”, speaks to that issue of the movement being largely for and by white middle-class women. It’s witty and pointed. You can read it at Poetry International.

“got something for you to swallow”

(from “Gather”, by Evelyn Araluen)

I have, though, written on First Nations poetry in this blog. My post on the digital publication, Writing black, that was edited by Ellen Van Neerven, includes references to several of the poets I’ve named above, including Kerry Reed-Gilbert and Lionel Fogarty. I enjoyed Writing black especially because it introduced me to some of these voices I’d heard of but had not yet read.

Book cover

Ellen van Neerven is a well-recognised First Nations poet. Indeed, she was caught up in a controversy when her poem, “Mango”, unbeknownst to her I believe, was included in an HSC exam a few years ago. You know you have arrived on the Australian literary scene when you’ve been embroiled in a controversy. Anyhow, her second poetry collection, Throat, was shortlisted for several literary awards. Jonathan Shaw (Me fail? I fly) has reviewed it, describing it as “a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice”.

Another collection I haven’t read is Alison Whittaker’s BlakWork, which won the 2019 Judith Wright Calanthe Award. Bill (The Australian Legend) and Brona (Brona’s Books) have both reviewed it. Brona, in particular, connected with it.

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside my mother

However, I have read some contemporary First Nations poetry, including Ali Cobby Eckermann’s historical fiction verse novel Ruby Moonlight (my review) and her collection Inside my mother (my review). I’m currently reading Evelyn Araluen’s 2022 Stella Prize winning Drop Bear, which Brona has reviewed. Like much First Nations poetry it’s political and powerful, but is also witty.

This has been a brief and selective survey. There are many First Nations poets I haven’t mentioned, but if you are interested to hear what First Nations people are thinking, you won’t go wrong if you check out some of their poetry. I hope this post offers those interested some ways in.

Do you have any favourite First Nations poets – or, even, poems?

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

Click here here for my previous ILW/FNRW/NAIDOC Week-related Monday Musings.

Cindy Solonec, Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (#BookReview)

Cindy Solonec’s Debesa is one of those curious hybrid biography-memoirs that are appearing on the scene. Its subtitle describes it as The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez, implying biography, but in fact, Frank and Katie are Solonec’s parents and so the book also incorporates some of her own story as part of the family. I’ll return to this later, but will start with the main content, the biography.

Debesa spans four generations of the family, starting in the 1880s with Solonec’s maternal great-grandparents, but it centres, as the Media Release says, “on the unlikely partnership of Cindy’s parents: Frank Rodriguez, once a Benedictine novice monk from Spain, and Katie Fraser, who had been a novitiate in a very different sort of abbey – a convent for ‘black’ women at Beagle Bay Mission” north of Broome. The Release also explains that Debesa is a rewriting of Solonec’s 2016 PhD thesis which “explored a social history in the West Kimberley based on the way her parents and extended family lived during the mid-1900s”. What Solonec does in the book, then, is to turn her thesis into a readable history and a family memoir, a combination that is becoming an increasingly acceptable approach to historical writing.

There is some contention about this tree’s prison use, but not about its cultural significance.

I was keen to read Debesa for a few reasons, not least being that I’ve been to the Kimberleys (east and west) and am intrigued by this beautiful region and its complicated history. I grew up being aware of its pastoral history, particularly regarding the Durack family and the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and I came to understand some of its colonial past when I saw such “sights” as the Boab Prison tree in Derby during my visits there. As Solonec’s family story is contemporaneous with the mid-twentieth century Duracks and the Ord River scheme, it was enlightening to see this world from a smaller and more marginalised perspective. I say “smaller” because Frank and Katie’s property, the titular Debesa, was a small pastoral holding, and “marginalised” because Katie’s “mixed descent” Indigenous (Nigena) background meant the family was always on the outer.

Solonec sets the scene in her Introduction by providing a brief history of the Kimberley’s colonial history, one founded on “the ideology that everyone must live like white people. Speak their language. Adapt to the ways. And marry lighter skinned people …”. It’s the same story that we’ve read before – people dispossessed, country spoiled, and children stolen. In her early chapters, Solonec documents the family’s story from the time of her maternal great-grandparents, Indian immigrant Jimmy Casim/Nygumi and his Nigena wife, Muninga. Their daughter, Solonec’s grandmother Jira, was born in 1900 and stolen with her cousin in 1909. Designated as orphans and renamed Phillipena and Francesca, they were taken to Beagle Bay Mission, leaving their mothers distraught.

Alongside the stealing of children was the stealing of the land:

On stations along Mardoowarra [lower Fitzroy River], land was fundamental to Nigena existence. They knew every part of that country intimately. Their neighbours and the broader Australian post people’s concept of ‘country’, their religious attachment, their awareness of food sources, was inherent to their way of life. They knew the call, cry, track of every living creature. Everything that breathed, every hill, every creek, crevice and outcrop and night sky with its myriad of galaxies, they knew by name. The seasons dictated their movements and their care for country within pliable boundaries. No-one ever got lost.

But, the Nigena had to watch, Solonec writes, as their land was taken for pastoralism and their sacred sites destroyed and/or renamed. Her extended family, “like refugees in their own country, lived in bush camps near the homesteads” and the women were preyed upon by “lecherous, irresponsible guide menfolk”. There is nothing new here, but Solonec puts flesh on the bone by telling it through the prism of her own family.

In chapter 3, we meet Solonec’s parents, Frank, who migrated from Galicia, Spain, in 1937, and Katie, whose parents were the stolen Phillipena and Fulgentious, a Nigena man with a white stockman father. Together they forge a life, drawing on their deep and shared commitment to Catholicism. They take work where and when they can, Frank as a trusted builder and Katie a respected cook and station-worker. They raise and educate their four children, acquire their own land, and slowly build a home and establish a small pastoral business, Debesa. Theirs was a partnership in every sense of the word. Solonec makes the interesting observation that Aboriginal cultures and European peasant cultures, from which Frank had come, have much in common, including a “strong sense of kin”. And, of course, Frank as a non-English migrant, had his own experience of bigotry and prejudice.

Biography? Memoir?

There’s excellent historical research here about life in the Kimberley, with illuminating “short histories” of subjects like mustering and wage disparity, and discussion of issues like the divisive and destructive “exemptions” from the Native Administration Act. (Tony Birch addresses similar exemptions in his novel, The white girl.)

To write this book, academic Solonec drew, rightly, on a large body of secondary sources and other life-writing about the region – all of which is documented in the thorough bibliography at the end – but she also had her father’s diaries, which provided the book’s “chronological framework”, and the stories of her mother and extended family passed on through oral tradition. She writes that, fortunately:

Aboriginal peoples still uphold past events through oral histories … I was excited to find that their stories were not that hard to cross reference with the literature. Their memory vaults with stories that have been handed down served them well, confirming the reliability of Indigenous intelligence.

(I suspect she means “intelligence” in both meanings here.)

As I opened this post, though, the book is a curious mix. The first half reads like a traditional biography while the second half slips more into memoir. This is heralded in the Introduction where Solonec describes her aim as

wanting to leave a documented account for posterity about the way marginalised peoples lived in the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) region during the middle of the twentieth century. A social history as experienced by my families. I wanted to leave an account of ordinary people’s everyday lives that would not otherwise be recorded. An account based on my parents’ joint biography.

This is perfectly valid, and she achieves what she set out to do. Her approach does, however, raise some questions, particularly towards the end, where there’s a risk of the subjective blurring the objective, making the truth potentially hard to discern. Solonec is justly proud of her parents’ achievements, and certainly they had much to contend with, but there’s a sense that all the problems they had were external, which seems unrealistic. I don’t believe, however, that this invalidates the critical historical truths contained here. In fact, the warmth of the story makes Debesa an approachable history which, given the significance of its subject, is a good thing.

Lisa also reviewed this book, engendering some good discussion.

Cindy Solonec
Debesa: The story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez
Broome: Magabala Books, 2021
264pp.
ISBN: 9781925936001

(Review copy courtesy Magabala Books)

Novel-in-stories, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air

This is my third post inspired by Reading like an Australian writer, and it involves two First Nations writers, Ellen van Neerven on Tara June Winch’s award-winning debut novel Swallow the air. I chose van Neerven’s essay for my next post, because, coincidentally, I’d just read Winch’s story “Cloud busting” in Flock, an anthology, edited by van Neerven. Are you keeping up? “Cloud busting” is one of the stories in Swallow the air.

Form? What form?

Tara June Winch, Swallow the air

In my review of Swallow the air, I wrote:

The first thing to confront the reader is its form. It looks and even reads a little like a collection of short stories*, but it can be read as a novella. There is a narrative trajectory that takes us from the devastating death of narrator May Gibson’s mother, when May was around 9 years old, to when she’s around 15 years old and has made some sense of her self, her past, her people. May’s mother is Wiradjuri, her father English.

The asterisk pointed to a note at the end of my post, which stated that one story from the novel, the aforementioned “Cloud busting”, had been published separately in Best Australian stories 2006. And, in her essay, van Neerven says that she had used “Cloud busting” with students. Sounds like it could become one of Australia’s popular anthologised stories. This would be a good thing because, also in her essay, van Neerven comments on having had no introduction to “Indigenous-authored books” when she was at school (which, for 31-year-old van Neerven, was not that long ago.) Short stories are an excellent form for introducing school students to great stories and writing, and it would be a good thing to see more diverse stories added to current anthology favourites.

“Cloud busting” is a beautiful story, by the way, because it makes a point about deep loss but also conveys the warmth, trust and generosity that can exist between people.

Anyhow, back to form. Just as I wrote in my post on Swallow the air, van Neerven also comments on the book’s form, noting that “writing relational novels-in-stories” is a “very First Nations practice”. She cites Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads (my review) and Gayle Kennedy’s Me, Antman and Fleabag, as other examples. Marie Munkara’s Every secret thing (my review) fits in here somewhere too, I’d say. I hadn’t really thought about this as being particularly First Nations, as we all know novels from various writers that generate arguments about whether they are novels or short story collections. However, in my experience – and I am generalising a bit – First Nations people can be great story-tellers so it wouldn’t surprise me to find the form of “novel-in-stories” being more common among First Nations writers.

Further discussing this book, in which protagonist May goes on a journey back to Country to find her Wiradjuri origins, van Neerven makes another interesting observation, which is that May’s journey “plays into the reader’s romanticised expectations that a return to Country will bring the story a happy resolution”. But, of course, it’s not that simple. Country has often been too damaged by “past policies and institutionalisations”, as van Neerven puts it, for this to happen, but, she says, May does come to understand something important, which is that Country “lives within her” and her family “allowing her to feel strong in her identity without the shame of not living or growing up on Country”. Of course, it’s not up to me to pronounce on the validity of this way of seeing, but it makes good sense to me.

Anyhow, I’ll leave it, on these two interesting-to-me points, as I don’t want to steal the life from Castle’s book. These essays are all so different, as you’d expect, but this just makes them more worthwhile. You just never know what approach a writer is going to take when talking about another writer, but you do know that it will probably be insightful.

Ellen van Neerven
“Kinship in fiction and the genre blur of Swallow the air as novel in stories”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 7-12
ISBN: 9781742236704

Tara June Winch
“Cloud busting”
in Ellen van Neerven (ed), Flock: First Nations stories then and now
St. Lucia: UQP, 2021
ISBN: 9780702264603 (Kindle)

Alf Taylor, God, the devil and me (#BookReview)

It was a complete coincidence that, as I was writing last week’s Monday Musings post on diversity and memoir, I was also reading a First Nations memoir, but such is the reading life, eh? The memoir, Alf Taylor’s God, the devil and me, is, however, both very much a memoir but also its own thing, which I’ll explain as we continue.

For those who, like me, hadn’t heard of Alf Taylor, here is a brief bio. He grew up in the Benedictine-run New Norcia Mission, Western Australia, escaping when he was fifteen years old. He then worked around Perth and Geraldton as a seasonal farm worker, before joining the Australian Army. Eventually, he “found his voice as a writer and poet”, and has had three collections of poetry and short stories published, including one also published in Spanish. He has given readings at festivals and events in Australia, England, France, India and Spain. The memoir’s Foreword describes him as the leading “Elder Nyoongar writer in Western Australia, as Kim Scott [who has appeared on my blog] is the leading younger writer”.

God, the devil and me is typical memoir in that it focuses on a particular aspect of Taylor’s life, his time at New Norcia from around 7 years old to his escape as a 15-year-old. We are talking the 1950s and 60s, which is horrifying to this 50s-60s child! As he tells it, he asked his parents, on a visit to the mission, if he could stay because his brother was there. So the die was cast, but very soon he realised it had not been a good request. Although his father and brothers, and his father’s mother had all gone “through New Norcia Mission”, and had become “good Catholic[s]”, for him it was a terrible experience. His story is one of unremitting brutality – including regular use of straps and sticks to keep the children in line, a diet that consisted primarily of “sheep’s head broth”, and inappropriate clothing – and utter rejection of the children’s Indigenous language and culture.

But, God, the devil and me, is also quite different from your usual memoir. For a start, and most significantly, it’s not told chronologically. Instead, it constantly shifts around, telling various stories ranging over his time at New Norcia. On the surface, the book looks like a bunch of, often quite short, anecdotes but, these stories are connected, not so much chronologically, as thematically, with one occasion or story usually leading organically to another. The end result is an impressionistic – if Dickensian – picture of life at New Norcia, rather than a coherent life story.

Many themes run through the memoir, the brutality, the sadness and loneliness, and alcohol, to which he is introduced through helping the priests with the altar wine. He doesn’t shy from intimating his own later problems with alcohol and he makes clear that many of his Mission friends had died early due to it. Another major thread of course is religion, and his introduction to God and the Devil, who, he is told by the priests, will always be with him. Early in the memoir, alcohol and God are intrinsically linked in his mind:

‘Taylorrr, you’rrre neverrrr going to make it in life. When you get out of herrrre, you arrrre going to get a flagon, find a shady tree and drrrink yourrrrself to death. All of you.’

Being so young, I clasped my hands in prayer and whispered, ‘Yes, Brother, I am going to do all those things when I grow up.’ I agreed with Brother Augustine because I thought that God was passing those words to the brother, who in turn, spat them at me.

Here we see one iteration of the memoir’s underlying idea, the confusion in the young Alf’s mind about religion – what it meant, who God was, how Jesus fit in, not to mention the role of the Brothers in it all. Near the end of the memoir is a surreal scene in which the sleeping Alf leaves his body and ascends to Heaven where he meets (good) Judas and (drunk) Peter. In this scene, Alf finds/creates/discerns a more charitable Christianity than he has experienced at the Mission (which, he sees as being worse than Hell could ever be).

“turn sorrow into laughter”

Alf Taylor is clearly a storyteller. He convincingly embodies his young self when writing about his childhood. The memoir is fundamentally political, but you don’t hear words like “invasion” or “dispossession”. What you hear is a mish-mash of history as young Alf understood it. White Australians are generally referred to as Captain Cook’s Australians and the government, Captain Cook Government. He describes a visit to the Mission of the “Native Affairs men and women”. When asked who founded Australia,

of course, at the top of our lungs, we all shouted in unison ‘Captain James Cook’ with such pride that even old Jimmie Cook himself would’ve risen from the grave and saluted us little Native children.

Similar, usually self-deprecating, humour recurs throughout. Taylor is one of those writers who can use humour to inject a sting in the tail. Here is another moment. Injured by a rock, he is taken to hospital in Perth, where:

I was in for the shock of my life – there were little Captain Cooks lying everywhere; there seemed to be a million of them, and not one little blackfella around.

And, what’s more, he notices that “the gawking Watjella kids all looked the same”!

However, Taylor’s experience isn’t all bad. There are bright moments. Footy is one, but best is when they can get out into the bush. It is in these moments that young Alf is happiest:

running free through the bush, watching the birds fluttering through the leaves or sitting by a stream watching a babbling brook hiss its foam at you was magic … to me, the bush was Heaven. Only Watjellas went to Heaven; we Nyoongahs, when we died came back as a bird or an animal, even as a newly formed brook to quench the thirst of other weary Nyoongah kids … I mean, to me, the bush was everything, my mother, my father; to me, in the bush, I could do no wrong; the fire of Hell did not exist.

He recognises his Ancestors as being the source of his true spirituality – and yet, there is always the overlay of “God, the devil and me”. How DID that fit in with everything else?

Early in the memoir, Taylor shares that the “best thing” he got from New Norcia was learning to read and write. These, he said, were “my weapons” and he devoted much time to them. He also talks about the love of books, and “sneaking off to the library” when others were playing: “a book was like magnetism to me and the pencil was my friend”.

I will leave it here. With its strong content and seemingly disjointed structure, God, the devil and me is not an easy read, but it pays persistence with gold, because this voice, while different from other First Nations voices, complements them and adds depth to the truths we are hearing.

Contribution for Brona’s AusReadingMonth2021.

Alf Taylor
God, the devil and me
Broome: Magabala Book, 2021
289pp.
ISBN: 9781925936391

Review copy courtesy Magabala Books

Nardi Simpson, Song of the crocodile (#BookReview)

Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile is a tight multi-generational saga set in the fictional town of Darnmoor over the last decades of the twentieth century. It tells the story of the people of the Campgrounds, who are ostracised, exploited and abused by the white townspeople. Between the Campgrounds and the town proper, with its ironically named Grace and Hope Streets, is the tip, which was created by knocking down “strangely scratched gums” on the old bora grounds. The road to the tip, and on to the Campgrounds, is Old Black Road. The stage is set …

“trespassers on their own country”

The story is told in three parts which span three generations of the Billymil family – Celie, her daughter Mili, and Mili’s eldest son Paddy. Celie’s part starts, however, with her mother, Margaret. Margaret not only runs the town hospital’s laundry, but also undertakes the major load of nursing the hospital’s First Nations patients. They are housed on “the back verandah” and are mostly ignored by the hospital’s medical staff. In this way, very early in the novel, we get the picture loud and clear about how the town’s Indigenous people are treated. The racism, the omniscient narrator tells us, is “hidden yet glaring. It’s the Darnmoor way”.

But there is a parallel story going on here, too, that of the spirits and ancestors, the “knowledge keepers”, who reside among the stars. They “wait for their loved ones to arrive” but they also introduce an important idea underlying this story – the “connectedness” of “all living or once lived things”. This connection is symbolised in the novel by threads and ropes that join sky and earth through birds and trees to the roots underground. I loved that Simpson shared this, that she trusted her readers to respect a worldview that’s foreign to many of us.

Intrinsic to this connectedness, of course, is the land. Some of the book’s most lyrical writing comes from descriptions of the country – rivers, trees, birds – in which it is set. This country is the freshwater plains of northwest New South Wales, the traditional lands of Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay heritage. In her novel its main feature is the Mangamanga River, “known by some as the wide-bodied, liquid boss of the plains.” It is to this river that Mili and/or members of her family go to refresh their spirits, but the men of Darnmoor want to control it, and protect themselves, by building a levee between the town and the Campgrounds.

Essentially, then, Song of the crocodile is the story of people who are made to feel “trespassers in their own land”. But, it’s also the story of strong, resilient women who forge a community on the Campgrounds. With guts and confidence, Celie turns her mother’s laundry skills into a business called the Blue Shed, providing work for herself and the other women. These women are a joy to read about, but they and their families are barely tolerated by the town, which ensures they know their place. When Mili’s bright young friend Trilpa wins a mathematics prize she is disqualified on trumped-up grounds, and when Mili, herself, applies for permission – permission, would you believe – to continue school past the age of 15, she too is brought down, by Mayor Mick Murphy, in the worst way.

“threads of broken lore”

Needless to say, it’s a difficult story. Too many people, people we’ve come to love, “pass” too young. As the oppression of those left behind builds, creating “hopelessness and grief”, the beast – Garriya, our titular crocodile – starts to stir. Regular hints of his rumbling imbue the novel with a sense of foreboding.

The crocodile is apparently a creator being in Yuwaalaraay country, but his evocation in this novel, as Garriya, is unleashed by the evil that has been visited upon the Campground people, evil that has broken the country’s lore. We feel him coming, and Mili’s alienated son Paddy is the conduit. Desperate to counteract this, spirit songman Jakybird wants to reconnect the “threads of broken lore”. He prepares his spirit “choir” for one last, powerful song, Garriya’s cycle. The climax is shocking, but the ending is cheekily open.

All this sounds grim, but I didn’t find it hopeless. There is delightful warmth and humour in the interactions between the Campground women, and there is humour and hope in the spirit world. Through these, Simpson gives us a complex story of oppression and survival. For all the misery suffered by the Billymils and their community, there is hope in their resilience, in their ongoing connection to country, and in their determination to keep passing on culture. Early in the novel, laundry worker Joyce addresses the parcels for delivery, using drawings that convey “a belonging, a knowledge, a truth of the place on which they walked and worked”:

In most cases the recipients failed to notice the mark, tearing the paper off and crushing it into a ball. It didn’t matter that eventually it was taken to the tip and returned to the earth. What mattered were the boys on the bikes that delivered them, that read the symbols then read the land. The drawings and the washing restored old journeys, countrymen walking on places they knew.

Simpson also, as First Nations writers are increasingly doing, uses Yuwaalaraay language throughout. She doesn’t directly translate it and there is no glossary. This bothered some of my reading group, while others of us felt the meaning was always clear – or clear enough. Here, for example, is Margaret in Chapter 1:

“Yaama. Dhii ngaya gaagilanha. Who wants a cuppa?” Margaret pushed open the door to the hospital’s back verandah, its hingers squealing as she entered. “How are we all today?”

Song of the crocodile was my reading group’s July book, and it resulted in one of our liveliest discussions this year, as we defended our diverse responses to its ideas, style, characters and tone.

For me it was an absorbing read. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the insidious racism that First Nations Australians confront and the devastating impact of that on the spirit, but it also shows resilience in the face of that, and it affirms that culture is strong. That has to be a positive thing?

For Lisa’s and other blog reviews, check her ILW Fiction Reading List.

Challenge logo

Nardi Simpson
Song of the crocodile
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2020
401pp.
ISBN: 9780733643743

Adam Thompson, Born into this (#BookReview)

When my brother gave me Tasmanian author Adam Thompson’s Born into this earlier this year, I told him I’d save it for Lisa’s ILW 2021, which I did – and which means I can now thank him properly for a yet another well-chosen gift, because this is a strong, absorbing and relevant read. If you haven’t heard of Thompson, as I hadn’t, he is, says publisher UQP, “an emerging Aboriginal (pakana) writer from Tasmania”. 

Born into this is a debut collection of sixteen short stories about the state’s Palawa/Pakana people, and based primarily in Launceston and islands in the Bass Straight. It reminds me a little of Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Too much lip (my review) because, like it, these stories are punchy, honest interrogations into the experience of being Indigenous in contemporary Australia. I say contemporary Australia, because most of the stories deal with recognisably First Nations Australia concerns. However, the collection is also particularly Tasmanian – in setting and in dealing with issues and conditions specific to that place.

They may live in two worlds, but they are still mob (“The old tin mine”)

I like to think about the order in which stories in a collection are presented, although I can never be confident of the assumptions I make about the reasoning. How can I, I suppose, as I’m not in the heads of the authors and their editors. The first story here, “The old tin mine”, is an interesting choice: it introduces various issues and ideas which are picked up through the collection and it sets a sort of resigned tone. The issues include the relationship between black and white in Australia, the introduction of city Indigenous kids to country and culture, the clumsy conscientiousness of white people who want to do the right thing, the politics involved, and the world-weariness of older Indigenous people in dealing with all of this. The story is told first person through the eyes of “Uncle Ben”, the Indigenous leader on an “Aboriginal survival camp”. He is tired, and cynical, and not particularly interested in dealing with these

Aboriginal teens. City boys. Three from Launceston, three from Hobart. “Fair split, north and south”, according to the organisation that had won the black money.

But it’s a job, and these jobs are becoming less frequent, so he takes it on.

The second story, “Honey”, is told third person, and concerns the interactions between white man Sharkey, who has a honey business, and his Palawa employee, Nathan. Sharkey is arrogant, condescending and oblivious of how his behaviour might affect Nathan. He asks Nathan for the “Aboriginal word for honey” because he thinks using it to brand his honey would “be a good gimmick for selling honey … ‘specially with the tourists”. Not all stories work out this way, but in this one, Nathan has the last laugh.

“Honey” also introduces another idea that peppers the collection, which is land rights, and non-indigenous Australians’ fear of losing land. The collection, in fact, references many of the issues confronting contemporary Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples: land rights; Invasion Day (or “change the date”); dispossession, the loss of Indigenous culture and attempts to reclaim it; social issues like incarceration, alcoholism and suicide among Indigenous people; and the Stolen Generations, to name some of them.

Some stories, however, respond to a particular Tasmanian issue, that regarding the definition of indigenity. As I wrote in my post on Kathy Marks’ Channelling Mannalargenna, Tasmania’s history has resulted in a specific set of circumstances regarding loss of identity, which has caused, and is still causing, complications and conflict over Indigenous identification in the state. One of the stories on this subject is “Descendant” about a bright, politicised but ostracised young schoolgirl who runs her school’s ASPA (Aboriginal Students and Parents) committee. Dorothy is assiduous about who is and is not “P-A-L-A-W-A”, and has family-tree records to prove it. Aboriginality, she says, is about “being”, not “choosing”. The story provides an excellent example of Thompson’s use of imagery to underpin his themes: Dorothy’s prized mug is accidentally broken, and Cooper, the supportive (of course!) librarian, tries to repair it, but

Bold, white cracks now intersected the Aboriginal colours like a tattered spider web.

Thompson’s writing in this collection is accessible but evocative. His dialogue varies appropriately from speaker to speaker, and the imagery, particularly that regarding colour – red, blue and white, representing white Australia, versus the red, black and orange of First Nations Australia’s flag – is pointed but not overdone. Thompson clearly knows his country. His descriptions of the islands, and the plants and birdlife endemic to them, take you there (or, at the very least, teach you about them.)

I would love to write about more of the collection’s stories, but I should leave you some surprises. I will say, though, that Thompson’s wide cast of characters – from young, disaffected palawa to smart activists, from genuine white people, who want to understand, to the smug and/or rich ones (as in the incisive “The black fellas from here“) – ensures that this collection hits home. No reader, really, can hide from the truths here because they touch us all.

White makes you wary (“Aboriginal Alcatraz”)

Born into this, then, is clearly political, but it is not all bleak. Some stories end with a bang or a twist, which skewer their points home, while others are more gentle. The title story, “Born into this“, is one of the more poignant ones. It tells of Kara, who works as a receptionist at an Aboriginal housing co-op. She’s jaded. Her boss is “a tick-a-box Aboriginal” who “could never prove his identity”, and she is tired of the struggle to survive. So, deep in the forest, where she had learnt about country from her uncle, she spends her spare time working away on her own quiet, little subversive project, a project that involves

Natural survivors, like her own family, born into a hostile world and expected to thrive. She took in the surrounding devastation and thought again about her own life.

“Born into this”.

She knows she won’t make a difference, but “fulfilling some cultural obligations in her own small, secret way” keeps her sane.

It would be great to think that books like Born into this could make a difference – and I think they could, if we all not only listened to Indigenous writers like Thompson, but also took on board, really took on board, what they tell us about ourselves.

For more reviews of this novel, please click Lisa’s ILW 2021 link in this post’s opening paragraph.

Adam Thompson
Born into this
St Lucia: UQP, 2021
210pp.
ISBN: 9780702263118